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Consider Fermenting as a value-added way to grow your market

Consider Fermenting as a value-added way to grow your market

Touted for its historical health benefits across the globe, fermented foods have been on the hot list recently, especially in the Maryland region. In part, due to Rachael Armstead and her husband who have pioneered them back from ancient history, into value-added products for farmers markets and wholesale outlets through their work with the local and state health departments. Rachel worked on farms in the region before starting The Sweet Farm four short years ago, and noticed the abundance of fresh produce that could be grown in the region. Produce perfect for making her favorite foods, fermented pickles, sauerkraut, and cultured sweetfarm2mustard.

This week we had the privilege of learning from Rachel, who worked tirelessly with the state health department to create a set of standard operating producers (SOPs) that were non-existent four years ago. She became the first certified in the state to sell raw fermented goods at market and wholesale, paving the way for others to follow. Unlike some surrounding states, the Maryland Department of Health does require the use of a commercial kitchen facility.

Fermenters are adamant that ferments be from the freshest produce, great news for local farmers. Because the fermentation process is not as forgiving as pickling with vinegar, it is imperative that the produce used is freshly harvested and fermented right away.  When cabbage is fermented long after harvest, it becomes too dried out. Cucumbers need to head straight to the walk-in cooler or directly into a wash tank to get the field heat off. Cabbage grown for fermenting is preferably grown in the fall in our region for best results. We’ve heard from Rachel and other commercial fermenters across the state, who are in need of more local produce– cucumbers and cabbage in particular.

SMADC workshop with The Sweet Farm. Click to enlarge photos.
SMADC workshop with The Sweet Farm.

Though the most common, fermenting is not just for cabbage and cucumbers. In addition, produce that grows well in our region and makes for good fermented products include: beets, carrots, turnips (try hakureis!), and radishes. Apples are great too, but need to be used sparingly as the sugars create yeast in process. In smaller quantities, locally grown onions, garlic, ginger, celeriac, dill and fennel are also sought after. Interestingly, juniper berries (found locally from wild cedar trees) can be used in place of caraway or mustard seed.

If you grow any of the produce mentioned, consider connecting to one of  the local retailers, such as the Sweet Farm, Oksanas Produce, or HEX, as a wholesaler. Or test the waters yourself. Fermented products are a relatively easy to prepare, healthful, and trendy. They have a long shelf-life.

Additionally, think about this marketing opportunity. Consider selling a 1/2 or whole bushel box of cucumbers or cabbage to your market or to CSA customers when abundant. Provide a recipe, benefits, tools on your website for making ferments at home. From my eVAPG-Guide-Cover-768x963experience in canning tomatoes and fermenting sauerkraut, canning is more labor intensive.

If you are considering adding any kind of value-added products to your farm entity, now is a good time. USDA Rural Development grants are currently open (through June), with matching funds available to Maryland producers through MARBIDCO. Read the 2016 Value Added Producer Grant Program for details. A new guide (click photo on right to view) was released this week to help farmers navigate the application.

 

 

 

 

Kimchi to Charcuterie- Savvy marketing by local producers tickles consumers taste buds

Kimchi to Charcuterie- Savvy marketing by local producers tickles consumers taste buds

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MDA Secretary Joeseph Bartenfelder in attendance.

Every year Maryland Department of Agriculture holds a Buyer Grower Expo in Annapolis, providing a forum for farms and value-added producers to meet new potential buyers. In the last few years that SMADC has been going, we’ve seen the numbers in attendance continually rise- with now over 60 growers, processors,  watermen, and small food businesses attending from Maryland.

What was most impressive this year was the sheer variety of products available. Both from the farms that are growing them and from the producers who are processing Maryland grown food into an array of value-added products.

Creative Packaging

Especially appealing, was all the creative packaging. Selling, marketing and experiencing the Chesapeake grown oyster, for example, has reached new levels of refinement.  No longer distributed in boring boxes, they included bright and bold statements with catchy phasing like, “come unhinged!” (Madhouse Oysters) and “get cultured!” (Black Horse Oysters). Even the language used to describe the flavor of each oyster sounds like a wine tasting, “…Madhouse oysters start with salt…subtle, enough to enhance, not dominate…clean, firm meat yields a beautiful sweetness, like a first kiss. Memorable.”

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Photo by @hexferments getting ready for the Local Fair Fare in January where I had the chance to sample a bright purple kombucha drink, which I thought was colored with food dye but turned out to be a natural herbal flower.

This trendy, creative marketing is a common thread among the progressive food businesses showcased at the Expo. Popularity of fermented foods is increasing, once only for health food stores, is now becoming more widely available in the mainstream market. Farm Marketing has reached a new level of sophistication. With colorful branding, and appealing tag-lines to excite the taste buds.
Value-added fermented foods like sauerkrauts, kimchis, and kombuchas (in varrying flavors and pops of colors) come in brightly colored packaging that jumps out at you from the stand. Speaking not just from the health perspective but also a delicious food and condiment option, these producers are taking fresh Maryland-grown produce and transforming it into value-added products to spice up everyday dishes.

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Michelle’s Microgreens on display for chefs.

Produce farmers differentiate themselves

From hydroponics to farms specializing in gourmet garlic only, and sprouts, with great attention paid to the detail of presenting the product in an attractive and appealing way, like Michelle’s Mircogreens (pictured left) with 8 different types of sprouts, a shelf life of 2 weeks, and ready to be used as needed to decorate and maintain the flavor of fresh dishes by chefs. Several young wholesale farmers were in attendance, stepping up to the family plate, including Miller, Shlagel, and Swann farms. They represent the next generation of farmers who are increasing their outreach to larger wholesale markets such as major grocery chains and schools.

Locally cured meats & quail eggs

Meats were also well represented with small farm enterprises such as Cabin Creek Heritage Farm, who recently diversified into quail production for quail eggs. And meat and poultry producers seeking larger clients.  The American palate has had a longstanding love affair with Charcuterie. It has been difficult however, to find locally produced processed meats in Maryland. Enter: Meat Crafters, a new start-up in Landover, Maryland producing a full line line of specialty hand-made charcuterie meats in small batches. They offer an opportunity to custom pack for the local farmer, and they are USDA inspected for beef pork and poultry.

A good bang for your buck!

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Meat Crafters Charcuterie Display at the Expo

The average cost of an expo table at a big event is usually $100 or more, but for $20 a table, the Maryland Buyer-Grower Expo is well worth the fee if you are are a farm or value-added business looking for new buyers. Maryland and regional buyers are well represented, and many have the Expo on their calendars well in advance, year after year. We commend the publication MDA produces for the event, which is also available online. The directory includes names and addresses of buyers represented at the Expo for contact throughout the year. We’ve already heard of some new follow-up connections that were made after the Expo.

 

 

 

Ready to try value-added? Start here.

Ready to try value-added? Start here.

Sometimes, farm profitability is just one value-added step away. Lots of farmers have the great ideas, but they lack the support to get there.

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Jeff Williams

On February 5th, the Maryland Agricultural Marketing Professionals (AMPs) met to discuss how to help farmers can take their products to the next level and I got to sit in. We heard from Jeff Williams, Program Specialist at Rural Business-Cooperative Service (Jeff.Williams2@de.usda.gov) and he filled us in on USDA’s Value-Added Producer Grant. Last year, Maryland farmers did well, garnering $2 million out of $21 million in grant money available across the U.S. However, ten good Maryland farms were not successful, so Jeff advised the AMPs what farmers should know  to improve their chance of success.

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Romano Vineyard & Winery is one of the farms that made a successful proposal

He said that the 50 page application may seem daunting but it is intended to provide all the necessary information and advice to compete. Two of the main reasons for failure are requesting non-eligible funds (clearly identified in the application) and weak or incomplete applications and budgets. There is a 50% local match, but there are many ways to meet that requirement.

One option is to seek assistance from the Maryland Agricultural & Resource Based Industry Development Corporation (MARBIDCO).

Steve McHenry
Steve McHenry

Steve McHenry, Executive Director of MARBIDCO, was also a presenter at the AMPs meeting and he goes out of his way to support farmers. For example the USDA Value-Added Producer Grant application notice and deadline varies each year. To assist Maryland farmers who may want to use MARBIDCO funds as a match, he informs farmers that his deadline is 2-weeks prior to the federal deadline, whenever that is. That helps the farmers put together a good draft application (which Jeff Williams is willing to review ahead of time) while he and his staff have time to review the application for a possible MARBIDCO match.

MARBIDCO helps farmers stepping up to value-added in three other ways.

1. Local government Ag/RBI cost share programs. Applications for this program must be submitted by a county or regional economic development director or an agricultural marketing specialist.

2. Maryland Urban Agriculture Commercial Lending Incentive Grants (in municipalities). It is offered with the financial support of Farm Credit and is designed to meet the financing needs of beginning urban farmers by providing an incentive for them to seek commercial lender financing for the development of their agricultural enterprises. The maximum amount of the grant is $7,500.

3. Maryland Value-Added Producer Grants. Capital asset-type projects designed to help farmers, forest product operations, and seafood processors to expand or diversify their business operations.

An announcement for the USDA Value-Added Producer Grant is expected in the next couple of months and you can find out more about MARBIDCO’s grants on it’s website.  Value-added dreamers, sharpen your pencils!

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